Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Flighty Writer... the Story of How I Came to Write - Part 1

'Under the Wall' is my first 'real' novel, and I began writing it December 3rd, of 2009. That should set off some light bulbs in your head, to the effect that I can't possibly be very experienced at writing.

Note, however, the quotes around 'real.' Those quotes are the true operant word in that sentence, so to speak. I have always loved to write, though for long years I didn't operate in the traditional, narrative prose mode whatsoever. Instead, I made strange, jangly word collages or massive, prose-like blocks of stream-of-consciousness word miasma. Looking back at this long phase of my writing life, I have to wonder what was going through my head - did it benefit me to form formless word sculptures, or was it some strange aberration formed by indulgence and a lack of mental firmness?

I have long been held enrapt by stories, and was frequently teased in my younger years in school for my 'bookwormy' nature. Even as a child I frequently began to write narrative stories - almost invariably sequels to the books I found most engaging. The longest effort I had undertaken was at age nine, a sequel to the 'Rats of NIMH' books by Robert C. O'Brien (continued by his daughter, Jane Leslie Conley in the remarkable 'Racso and the Rats of NIMH' and less spectacular 'RT, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH').

This attempt at a sequel to a property that was not mine fizzled out after a few chapters - chapters which may have been only a few hundred words each. I didn't try to tell a true, non-satirical narrative, save for a few isolated efforts, for years.

Looking back, I have to wonder why. I read more and more books, and sought more and more creative outlets in my life - yet the formation of words, the thing which came most easily to me and felt most expressive, was only approached through alternate routes... such as lyric writing, poetry, or more and more often these strange, word-salady blobs of paragraph-formatted lines - usually so purposely disjointed, thematically and grammatically, that to attempt to read a page so cloyed the mind with jagged syllables and empty meanings that even -I- have seldom looked this writing over after it was composed.

Somehow, it was the mere act of it that I found enjoyable - the end product was a wash, a waste. The pages I had at the end of the day were like an ashtray full of cigarette butts - a byproduct rather than a result.

It took me a few more years before I realized that the 'act' of it could be more enjoyable still if I got to a place where I could enjoy the result of my work, and not just the process of forming sentences and putting them down. Some of my work groped towards meaning, the rest seemed to rejoice in its meaningless as though it knew its time was soon to come - my nonsense, knowing it had only months to live, partied like it was 1999, basically.

Then, the unthinkable happened - I began to write stories. This happened in the most ridiculous, backhanded way possible. Looking back at the dawn of my 'career' as a fiction writer, I can't help but laugh at the sheer serendipity of it - the nonsensical way that I almost tricked myself into wanting to do what has since become my main passion. You see, my first book (the mercifully out-of-print 585 page curiosity 'GhostPopulace, Vol. 1') began as a prank: a simple prank, and nothing more.

The first 'chapter' composed for this book was originally made to be a submission to a paranormal website where users could post their own photos and first-hand supernatural experiences for others to see and read. This idea amused me, particularly since the photos were of things like dust blobs, or nothing, and showed zoomed in details of a tree that were supposed to look like faces or demons but in fact looked like extremely grainy tree-bark, and the stories were so over-the-top (or empty of content, alternately) as to be obviously untrue - not believed even by the posters. (Either 'demons came out and yelled at me and my friends, and they looked like they were on fire!' or 'I could swear I heard something but there was nothing there,' in other words).

If we truly lived in a world where even half of these people's stories were half true, there would be no debate about the existence of ghosts. Currently there is no valid scientific proof of ghosts - but such an issue would be moot if the world were as full of haunts as these people would have you believe. Most amusing to me, many of them had dozens of comments from people claiming to be 'terrified' by the images and tales others had posted, or little notes from folks claiming to be 'convinced' by the grainy, insubstantial photos.

This seemed to me to be a great opportunity - how absurd of a fake photo and story could I make and still get comments like these? From what I was seeing - fairly absurd. I set about photoshopping cuts of meat onto crash test dummie's feet and hands, making a bloody-stumped, floating apparition with glowing red eyes couched in a dim forest. My photoshop skills are no match for my limited writing abilities, and I can tell you right now that the image you have of this photo in your mind is likely ten times more realistic than that which I sent, along with my 'personal account,' to the site.

In retrospect, I don't know what first flagged the attempt as clearly fake - the obviously fake photo or the even more obviously preposterous story. If there is a narrative equivalent of a poorly photoshopped image cobbled from lots of public-domain parts, then this written submission was it.

Alien landing site? Check. Dark, frightening forest filled with voices of the dead? Check. String of serial murders in the seventies? You bet your ass. Indian burial ground? Why the hell do you think it was an alien landing site?

As you can see, this wasn't a brilliant composition. I didn't have a 'eureka' moment where I saw something from a new angle and realized I had a story to tell. Like the pages of word salad, this was a largely excretive process, consisting of binding together well-worn story elements in a flimsy shell. My motivations were simply to amuse myself with a ridiculous prank - and to that end I succeded.

I did not succeed, however, in getting the article or photo printed, even on a site that was full of obvious tripe. Had I sent a picture of a mere tree in to the editor, claiming that there were clearly demons capering in the blocky pixels around its base, I would have assuredly gotten on. But, in pushing the boundaries, I was instantly found out. It made me wonder why the clear fake of something interesting was less valuable to them than boring photos of blurry houses and dusty hallways, but I think I understand - at least with the ambiguity of the blurry images they can pretend they believe.

In any event, I found that making a ridiculous ghost story was rather fun. I had just read a very strange book about alternate theories of science and history that was filled with a lot of interesting theories by folks about why established science was wrong about things like the ages of the pyramids and the like, and that had influenced me to a degree to write the next prankish work - a revelation that scientist Nikola Tesla was actually dread demigouge Tezzlar Nikkolat - a terrifying being who had been found in portraits dating back hundreds of years before Tesla's supposed birth.

I just meant this to be a one-off joke, the idea that Tesla was actually an evil being named 'TezzLAR' seemed so funny to me, but the actual 'story' was little more than a brief paragraph asserting that yes, it's true: he's actually an evil being. In other words, it was more of a synopsis or argument than a story, rather along the lines of 'Hey, did you hear? The president is actually a robot!'

Now I had two ridiculous 'submissions,' this one even more tongue-in-cheek than the last, and no self-respecting site would host either of them. I didn't even bother trying to get the Tezzlar story posted (which also came with a photoshopped image of Tesla made to look, in theory, like an 16th-century painting). My solution was simple - create my own site.

I already ran a website for my music, and just made a sub-domain for the ghostly stuff. I used my considerable word salad skills to come up with a seemingly meaningless (at least context-less) name for the site: GhostPopulace.

I began to make a few more stories, all supposedly submitted by fictional people, and post them up. I did this at my old job, where I sat about and wrote during my long shifts as a sort of doodle. (This is where I amassed hundreds of manuscript pages of gobbledygook.) Some of the stories stopped being nearly as 'pranky,' and my writing quickly became attempts to tell short but interesting ghost stories rather than make cliche-ridden jokes.

Not that these stories, the first real narrative stories I had ever tried to write, were entirely devoid of cliches. The one of the first 'real' stories was about an answering machine that played back the message that the person on the other end of the phone really meant, what they are really thinking inside their heads, not what they say.

A machine like that is all fine and well when the revelations amount to nothing more than realizing that your landlord thinks your wife is hot, your video store clerk reminding you that not only are your movies overdue, but he thinks you are an idiot for racking up fines instead of just downloading the movies illegally, or that your friend really cancelled the poker game because his girlfriend was horny. The real meat of the story is when a call from their building repairman clues the couple in to the sick fact that he means to kill them both with a wrench when he comes to fix their pipes later that day.

This was the only thing that saved the young couple, and ever after the answering machine only left regular messages, like every other machine.

It sounds passable as a first effort, I suppose - though looking back I'm sure I could turn this interesting idea into a better realized story. At the time, I was deliberately writing these all in the style of a 'report,' a submission made by real people to a real website. It seemed to be part of the fun. At first, I would write about two of these short tales a day, in longhand, during an eight hour shift. Then I would type them up when I got home (coincidently, I lived in an apartment just above the office where I worked).

It didn't take too many weeks before I would work on one story for a few days, instead of just a few hours. After I had a few of these longer stories, I began to cross-pollinate. Tezzlar returned - this time witnessed by a couple on their way to a friend's wedding. The dread Tezzlar was driving a truck hauling a tarped-over trailer out behind. The couple see a strange, two-thumbed blue hand fall out of this tarp - and try their best to speed away. Just their luck - the same crazy guy pulls into their hotel later down the road and gets the room right next to them for the night.

Listening fearfully through the wall, the hapless young couple hear Tezzlar force the Armadillo creature's mind out of its body, and switch places with it. There's a terrible fight between the creature in the erudite 19th century gentleman's body and the ancient evil of Tezzlar in the electric-blue armadillio-creature's powerful frame - and the couple probably crapped themselves as it happened. If I remember correctly, the story ends with the new Tezzlar-dillo being flying into the sky, with powers immeasurable, off to commit some grave new injustice.

That was the turning point of the story, and quickly threads that had no common denominator before wrapped and wove about themselves. Other beings in the story had goals, the most frightening of which would have to be the Candleholder - a strange, seven-foot bald demon with pointed ears who enters our world through a doorway of blood sacrifice once every hundred years - except the ritual had gone wrong this time - the sacrifice was too good, in other words - and he had been let out for good. It ends up that he had rather ambitious goals, none of which proved favorable to humans.

The ridiculousness didn't stop there - a race of lizard people known as the Lacertillians had been imprisoned below the sea since the advent of flowering plants (to which they are fatally allergic) forced them under the surface. When a well-meaning group of young marine scientists accidentally enter their underwater realm on a deep-sea diving expedition, it gives them the chance they've been waiting for since the age of the dinosaurs to take a stab at reclaiming the surface.

Oh, and since we mentioned dinosaurs... A major role is played in the story by the ghosts of dinosaurs, their energy living on in the fossil fuels in the earth. (I think this has been proven wrong since then, and oil doesn't come from dinosaurs. Oops.) It ends up that they are getting weaker and weaker, and why? Because all the gasoline we are using up is burning off their psychic energy. So what? What does that matter anyway? They're already dead!

Well, it seems that the ghosts of dinosaurs are the only natural predator for the galaxy-encircling horde of aliens that pass by this way about every 200,000 years. If the dinosaurs aren't there to stop them, they'll eat us all up this time. They're on their way, man - better go find out how to save those dinosaurs!

The cast of 'good guys' is huge in this book. It had to be, given the scope - many of these stories are 'submitted' by fictional characters that don't know each other at first, and the plot is frequently advanced by one-off characters who don't figure in later, such as the young couple or an old farmer who notices the Tezzlar-dillo creature eating his pigs like a chupacabra. The story has at least three main villains if you don't count the alien horde. For something that began as a joke, it had ended up being an intensely complex work.

Sititng here writing about it now, it sounds like its pretty good, doesn't it? The plot certainly sounds action-packed. The problem was that I had had zero prior practice as a prose writer. It wasn't even until around the fourth story I had written for the book that I even began trying to write 'real' stories - I had literally begun writing the book before I realized

A) It was for a book
B) It could be something I could try to make good
C) That these could, with effort, be real stories and not just pranks.

Hardly conducive to sudden literary greatness. Still, it got me doing something I had always wanted to do but never quite realized - writing stories.

At this phase in my life I was disengaging myself from the musical aspirations that had defined my teenage and young adult years, and was very surprised indeed to find that I had begun to enjoy something that seemed so different from the main artistic outlet I had been working within for over a decade.

I began writing a second book immediately, even as I managed to sell all 85 copies of my initial run. (That 'GhostPopulace, Vol. 1,' a book began as a prank, has so far sold more than four times as many copies as 'Under the Wall' depresses me, but not too much.) Still, I stopped myself, even after I got some really good ideas and had developed them enough to use. Something stayed my hand - I felt this strange sense that 'if I keep doing this now, I'll just do it forever,' something that should have been reassuring and encouraging but at the time made me feel cautious and nervous.

I saved the work I had begun on the second book, thankfully - and now I am very glad I did not finish it at the time, because the central plot conceit of the second book will go on to be the plot of what should be my fourth book and third novel, sometime next year. I'm sure it will be better realized for the wait.

But from 2007 to 2009, I wrote only a book of poetry, 'Scattered Lights.' And that was in February of 2007, less than half a year after the release of 'GhostPopulace.' So for long years I was dormant as a writer - particularly as a prose writer.

I read precious little during that time save non-fiction. My interests pulled me in a million different directions but I never felt that I crystallized on the artistic outlet that I required - I felt increasingly non-artistic, non-producing. I couldn't find the sort of story-spark that had made me such a voracious reader of tales in my youth during this time. Upon beginning 'GhostPopulace,' my constant fiction reading for some reason stopped, and it never started again until September of 2009, through a happy chance.

I remembered a story from my youth that had terrified me: terrified me. Sitting, at age nine, in my dark basement at two A.M. I finished reading a story that filled me with such inexpressible fear and unreasoning horror that, though enthralled through and through with the tale (many elements of which I never forgot in the intervening 16 years) I didn't dare pick up another book by that author at the time.

There was magic in it, for one thing - not the wizards and wands kind at all, but the real kind. The power of childhood, of the mind, of the heart, of the word, and of belief. There was a sort of noble power coursing through the story, through the tones, through the words. Even through the evil in the story a sort of undeniable power seemed to flow.

That story was 'The Library Policeman' and that author was Stephen King. I remembered this story fondly one day in September 2009, and resolved to re-read it and see if it was really as terrifying as my nine-year old self believed it to be.

It was just as scary, though I was pleased to note that I could at least still function afterwards - age has some improvements apparently. What's more, I noticed things in it - things I probably perceived roughly at age nine but which now shone out at me from the text like beacons.

I had to read more of this author, and soon. I had read only 'Four Past Midnight,' 'Skeleton Crew,' both in fifth grade, and much later 'The Shining.' I decided to choose a famous work by him I knew only a little about, but enough to realize that in terms of scares it was a pretty safe bet.

Everybody, everybody, knows someone who is deathly afraid of clowns - and in almost every case it all stems back to one thing, back to one common, shared reason alone.

My decision of books may have been made lightly, with me simply wanting to chose a work that had a good chance at terrifying me, but the result was anything but. Just a few pages in and my life was changed forever.

That was the last week of September, 2009 - since then I have read over seventy books and written almost two. My, what one spark can do to a big pile of dead wood!

That was Part 1, where I explain how I rekindled my literary bent. In Part 2 I will look at how, as I began setting out on this new literary adventure, I became once more ensnared in the pen.


  1. Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh was one of my favourite books growing up and an important plank in that mental landscape that gets you writing yourself. Of course, these days she appears to have changed her name because some company thought people would get confused with a flying disc...

    Grey Wolf

  2. A sumptuous blog indeed. Loved every bit of it